Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Baby Face Morgan (PRC, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I watched last night came from the 50-film DVD boxed set “Dark Crimes” but, like Half a Sinner from the same box, turned out to be a comedy — and a surprisingly funny one given that it was from PRC and didn’t involve any of the prestigious (or at least cult-favorite) people that worked there from time to time — the director was Arthur Dreifuss (who’d later switch from one Poverty Row company to another and do Gale Storm’s vehicles for Monogram) rather than Edgar G. Ulmer, Steve Sekely or Douglas Sirk, and the writers -— Jack Rubin, Oscar Brodney and Edward Dein — were competent but didn’t have especially good reputations either for comedy or drama. Nonetheless they turned in a little gem of a film, a one-joke movie but one that spun a lot of clever and amusing variations on the one joke. It starts with a stock shot of the New York corner containing the Flatiron Building and, superfluously but also almost glorying in its campy superfluity, a title comes on and says, “In the East … ”

The gimmick is that a nationwide protection racket that’s shown in operation “In the East,” “In the West,” “In the North” and “In the South” has fallen on hard times since the recent death of its leader, Mike Morgan (a painting of him holding a tommy gun in mock-heroic pose is shown and saluted by his surviving lieutenants). The second-in-command, “Doc” Rogers (Robert Armstrong, more corpulent than we remember him from King Kong and sporting a rather silly moustache but still evincing powerful, don’t-mess-with-me authority and stealing the film out from under the nominal juvenile leads), hits on the idea of recruiting Morgan’s son Edward to come to “Central City” and take over nationwide leadership of the gang — only Edward (Richard Cromwell, a bit twinkie-ish but considerably better looking and at least somewhat more skilled as an actor than most PRC leading men) is a nice young kid who has no idea his dad was a gangster and who can only be recruited to take over the gang if it can be made to appear to be a legitimate business.

Accordingly, “Doc” revives a dummy insurance company the gang founded as a cover for their protection racket and puts Edward and his home-town best friend, Ollie Harrison (Chick Chandler), in nominal charge. Edward is instructed to sit in his office all day and do nothing while the gang creates a powerful, mysterious image for the reclusive “Baby Face Morgan” who’s come to take over his father’s criminal enterprise. They’re so good at doing this that Edward has no idea he’s the mysterious “Baby Face Morgan” the newspapers are writing about in such sinister terms. Edward falls in love with Virginia Clark (Mary Carlisle, top-billed) from a trucking company that has courageously resisted paying “protection,” and the two of them start selling “racketeer insurance” to all the trucking companies that have been targeted by the gang — with the result that every time the gangsters blow up a truck, their accumulated cash reserves go down as Edward taps their treasury to pay off the truckers and compensate them for their losses.

The whole fiasco attracts the attention of rival gangster Torelli (Ralf Harolde), who sees this as his opportunity to push Rogers’ outfit aside and take over the racket for himself — and it all ends with Edward’s shocked realization that he is “Baby Face Morgan,” the police arresting Rogers’ gang but then realizing that they have nothing to hold them for because they haven’t done anything illegal under Edward’s unwitting leadership, and of course Edward and Virginia hooking up. While not laugh-out-loud funny, Baby Face Morgan is a quite charming and amusing film start to finish, well worth watching and a far cry from the dreck that constituted most of PRC’s output.